Mary B. Billie has been a dollmaker since she was 17. She learned the skill by watching her mother, who had learned it from Mary's grandmother.

Seminoles used to make dolls mainly as toys for their own children, but now Billie, like other Seminole dollmakers, depends upon the craft to earn her living.

Mary B. Billie and daughter Claudia C. John in search of palmetto fibers to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie and daughter Claudia C. John in search of palmetto fibers to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80262a

Note: Mary B. Billie has been a dollmaker since she was 17. She learned the skill by watching her mother, who had learned it from Mary's grandmother.

Accompanying note: “She never knows where to find any. Like you would just go into a grocery store and get what you want. It's not like that. She has to hunt for it. If you're lucky, it takes her about half a day to find it, or if you can't find it, sometimes it takes her all day. Sometimes she has to go out the next morning to look for it again.”

Forms part of series S1577, Florida Folklife Archive, Photographs and Slides of Folk Arts, Artisans, and Performers.

The Interviews

In the interviews in this unit, Seminole doll maker Mary B. Billie and her daughter, Claudia C. John, discuss the history and practices of Seminole doll making. The interviews were conducted at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation by folklorists Doris Dyan and Peggy Bulger in June 1980. Mary Billie speaks in Mikasuki. Her daughter Claudia C. John translates.

Claudia C. John helping her mother Mary B. Billie look for palmetto fibers to make dolls : Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Claudia C. John helping her mother Mary B. Billie look for palmetto fibers to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80265a

Mary B. Billie's tools for gathering palmetto fibers to make Seminole dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie's tools for gathering palmetto fibers to make Seminole dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80259a

Accompanying note: “If you are planning on making dolls, uh, first of all you have to find the palmetto fibers. And for that you have to have a knife and a[n] axe and a file and maybe some water. And you don't know where you're going to find the palmetto fibers. You got to look for the nice ones. So you have to go 20 or 30 miles to look for that stuff.”

Seminole woman gathering palmettos: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Seminole woman gathering palmettos: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80269

Seminole woman gathering palmettos: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Seminole woman gathering palmettos: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80268

Mary B. Billie

In various texts, Mary's last name is spelled either "Billie" or "Billy." Since the Seminole language was not written, this is a phonetic approximation.

Within the Seminole tribe, Billie belongs to the Miccosukee group and Big Town clan. Billie has lived in Big Cypress since her daughter Claudia was born, and before that she lived in Hollywood. While in Hollywood she lived in a chickee, a traditional Seminole open-air shelter. In Big Cypress, Billie lives in a house but has her work space in a chickee because it is cooler.

The tradition of doll making in Billie's family can be traced back before 1900. Billie learned to make dolls from her mother who learned it from her grandmother. Billie's grandmother at first made dolls just for the children to play with; later, they were sold to tourists.

Seminole woman gathering palmettos: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie admiring the palmetto fibers she is about to harvest for dollmaking: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80278a

Accompanying note: “When Mary finds a good palmetto, she starts to strip out the fiber. 'First, you have to cut the leaves that are standing on that thing and then, after that, you just cut that thing off. You use the smaller knife to take the palmetto fibers off.” “She [has] a cloth with her and after she cuts them and gets it, that thing off it, she wraps it and brings it back. If it's dry enough, she goes ahead and makes the dolls. But if it's kind of wet, she has to let 'em dry out for a day before she can make it.”

Mary B. Billie harvesting palmetto fibers for dollmaking: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie harvesting palmetto fibers for dollmaking: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80280a

The Palmetto Plant

The first step in making a doll is to search for the palmetto. It can take between half a day and two days to find the right kind. Billie will cut between fifteen and fifty palmetto plants in a day. One palmetto plant will provide fiber for four or five dolls.

Billie cuts the fibers while she is out in the woods. Then she wraps them in cloth and brings them back to her work space. If the fibers are dry enough she makes the dolls. But if they are wet, she has to let them dry out for a day before she can make the dolls.

Mary B. Billie admiring the palmetto fibers she has collected for dollmaking: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie admiring the palmetto fibers she has collected for dollmaking: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80289a

Accompanying note: “She [has] a cloth with her and after she cuts them and gets it, that thing off it, she wraps it and brings it back. If it's dry enough, she goes ahead and makes the dolls. But if it's kind of wet, she has to let 'em dry out for a day before she can make it. She'll go ahead and cut them to what size she needs to make the dolls. She just goes ahead and cuts like some for the four inch, and some for the six inch, and you know, the body. It's always been like that, different sizes.”

Partially built chickee: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Partially built chickee: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80257a

Accompanying note: "Although she sews the clothes indoors, Mary Billie does most of her dollmaking in her backyard. She is building a chikkee there so that she will be able to work outside whenever she wants to. 'She said when she's making dolls and when you make it in the house, it gets kind of dirty. So she'd rather be out under the chikkee when she's making dolls.”

Mary B. Billie and daughter Claudia C. John by a table under a partially built chickee: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie and daughter Claudia C. John by a table under a partially built chickee: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80258a

Seminole women starting to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Seminole women starting to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80296

Mary B. Billie in the early process of making a Seminole doll: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie in the early process of making a Seminole doll: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80299a

Accompanying note: “She makes the head first and then puts the body together. She'll make the heads like maybe she's going to make a hundred. Sometimes she makes fifty and then she cuts up the body the same amount and then she starts working on it.”

Making the Dolls

Billie might make fifty dolls at one time. She makes the heads first. The head is always stuffed with palmetto fibers. The body is traditionally stuffed with palmetto fibers, but Billie often uses cotton. Then she'll cut a circle of cardboard and sew it to the bottom of the doll so the doll can stand straight.

Then she'll sew the eyes and the mouth. When that is finished, she makes the clothes and sews them onto the doll. Sometimes the hair is made with cardboard and black material. Other dolls have yarn hair with ponytails and braids. Billie adds beads for the necklace and the earrings. She uses traditional Miccosukee designs for the clothing of the larger dolls.

Seminole women starting to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Seminole women starting to make dolls: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (not after 1980)

Image number: FS80305

Mary B. Billie sewing a Seminole doll head to the body: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie sewing a Seminole doll head to the body: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image Number: FS80306a

Accompanying note: “Mary stuffs the head with pieces of palmetto fiber. 'If she uses something else like cotton, the needle won't go through that cotton. So she uses that palmetto fiber. Then she would put the palmetto fibers inside the doll to make it stand.”

“Mary often saves time by stuffing the bodies with cotton instead of fiber, 'since the body doesn't need much sewing.”

Mary B. Billie displaying work during the process of attaching a Seminole doll head to the body (not after 1980)

Mary B. Billie displaying work during the process of attaching a Seminole doll head to the body (not after 1980)

Image Number: FS80307a

Mary Billie displaying work after stuffing Seminole doll with palmetto fibers: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Mary Billie displaying work after stuffing Seminole doll with palmetto fibers: Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Florida (not after 1980)

Image Number: FS80317a